If you had never seen JaVale McGee play basketball before Monday night, all you needed to do was watch the first nine minutes of the second quarter of the Wizards’ 95-94 win over the Boston Celtics; it was practically his season in a nutshell. He provided both the spectacular, highlight-reel plays that showcase his immense potential and the forehead-slapping, head-shaking plays that reveal areas where he still needs to improve.
He had an offensive foul but came back to block a shot by Troy Murphy with two hands and throw a behind-the-back pass to Othyus Jeffers for a dunk. He caught an alley-oop pass from Jordan Crawford, hovered around the rim, dunked with one hand and made a driving bank shot. Then he grabbed a defensive rebound and threw the ball away to Glen “Big Baby” Davis, who found Sasha Pavlovic for a layup. It was a wild adventure, entertaining on several levels.
But in a season of injuries, trades and constant turnover in which the Wizards had 29 different starting lineups, McGee was one of the few constants. He will finish the season with a team-best 79 games played, including 75 starts — which is impressive considering McGee had started just 33 games combined in his first two seasons. He is also averaging career-highs of 10.1 points and 8.0 rebounds and ranks second in the league behind Milwaukee’s Andrew Bogut in blocked shots with 2.45 per game.
“Playing time and experience definitely makes an improvement on one’s game,” McGee said. “It was really exciting, being able to show my skills. I was able to be a better player this year. I feel like I’ve improved and I feel next year is going to be even better.”
This season hasn’t been without its frustrating moments, though, as McGee often upset Coach Flip Saunders and his staff with his impulse to do what he shouldn’t (dribbling up the court, and getting the ball at the foul line and making outrageous drives to the basket) and failing to do what he should (missing defensive assignments, goaltending shots and being out of position far too many times). But it was all part of the learning process for McGee, who was effective when he was aggressive on the boards and on the defensive end.
“I think the frustrating moments come because you realize how much potential he really has. And as coaches, you’re going to drive him to reach that potential,” said Saunders, who never shied away from punishing McGee with a swift hook whenever he went astray. “He’s got great skill. Talking to other coaches around the league, they feel he can be such a dominant player and not even having to score, even though he has improved on his scoring. If he was on a veteran team, they would probably say, ‘We’re not going to run one play for you. You’re just going to rebound, block shots and really key the defense.’ But he’s made good improvements, from beginning to an end.”
McGee admitted that this season had its challenges as he dealt with complications from athletic asthma. He was often seen using his inhaler during games, an adjustment he had to make after discovering the problem late last season. “Definitely fighting through fatigue and not being able to breathe, but I’ve been fighting through it my whole life and not knowing it. It’s something I had to get through,” he said.
McGee had his ups and downs, but he led the Wizards in player efficiency rating at 17.39. He grabbed at least 10 rebounds in 28 games, recorded 20 double-doubles, and had his first triple-double with 11 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high 12 blocks (which sparked much controversy).
“His big thing is, can he take the next step from a physicality standpoint to be a physical center in this league?” Saunders said. “He can have an impact in this league because of what he can do. And you know the frustration happens because you know he can do it for longer period of times.”
McGee has 191 blocked shots, which is the most since Charles Jones blocked 197 in 1989-90. He said his progession was due to “just more patience and strength and being more stable I suppose.”
But McGee, who became more famous after finishing second to Blake Griffin in the slam dunk contest cannot resist a good highlight opportunity. When asked about McGee’s incredible pass to Jeffers in the 95-94 win over Boston, John Wall laughed and said,
“I’m just happy it went down. Usually it don’t and he sit on the sideline upset.”
McGee said Saunders didn’t have a problem with the play. “He don’t say nothing unless I don’t convert it.”